11. Joseph's Vain Ambitions

William Law was Joseph Smith's counselor in the First Presidency of the Church during the Nauvoo era. He was for a time a trusted intimate of the prophet. Law described Joseph in a way not generally reported to believers:

"One of Joe Smith's weakest points was his jealousy of other men. He could not bear to hear other men spoken of. If there was any praise it must be of him; all adoration and worship must be for him. He would destroy his best friend rather than see him become popular in the eyes of the church or the people at large. His vanity knew no bounds. He was unscrupulous; no man's life was safe if he was disposed to hate him. He sat the laws of God and men at defiance."

One of Joseph's ambitions was to resolve the heavy debt incurred by the church by establishing the Kirtland Safety Society Bank on January 1, 1837. However, due to being denied this privilege by the Ohio legislature, he established the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company the following day. The bank was said to have been established through revelation from God, and it was rumored that Joseph predicted that like Aaron's rod, the bank would swallow up all other banks "and grow and flourish, and spread from the rivers to the ends of the earth, and survive when all others should be laid in ruins." (According to Warren Parrish, who succeeded Joseph as cashier of the bank, in a letter dated March 6, 1838 in Zion's Watchman. This letter was certified to be a statement of fact by Luke Johnson and John F. Boynton (former apostles) and Sylvester Smith and Leonard Rich (former seventies).)

The Messenger and Advocate published an appeal for investors which said:

"…we invite the brethren from abroad, to call on us, and take stock in our Safety Society; and we would remind them also of the sayings of Isaiah…'Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold (not their bank notes) with them, unto the name of the Lord thy God.'" (The parenthetical expression is part of the original text, reprinted in History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 473)

According to several individuals that left the church, the bank was established on fraudulent claims of capital security. They related that the bank vault was lined with many boxes, each marked $1,000. These boxes were actually filled with "sand, lead, old iron, stone, and combustibles," but each had a top layer of bright fifty-cent silver coins. Anyone suspicious of the bank's stability was permitted to lift and count the boxes. According to C. G. Webb:

"The effect of those boxes was like magic. They created general confidence in the solidity of the bank and that beautiful paper money went like hot cakes. For about a month it was the best money in the country." (Interview by W. Wyl. See Mormon Portraits, p. 36; also Oliver Olney: Absurdities of Mormonism Portrayed, p. 4; the letter of Cyrus Smalling in E. G. Lee, The Mormons, or Knavery Exposed, p. 14; and Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, pp. 194-8).

William Parrish, secretary for Joseph and cashier of the bank for a short time, wrote in 1838:

"I have been astonished to hear him declare that we had $60,000 in specie in our vaults and $600,000 at our command, when we had not to exceed $6,000 and could not command any more; also that we had but about ten thousand dollars of our bills in circulation when he, as cashier of that institution, knew that there was at least $150,000." (Letter to Zion's Watchman, published March 24, 1838. Cyrus Smalling also wrote that Joseph had collected only $6,000 in specie. See E. G. Lee, The Mormons, or Knavery Exposed, p. 14)

It should be noted that Parrish left the church following this fiasco and began openly to describe Joseph's banking methods. He was later accused of absconding with $25,000, probably in bank notes which ultimately proved worthless.

On January 27, less than a month after the bank's opening, the Painesville Telegraph reported that Joseph had "shut up shop…saying he would not redeem another dollar except with land." Everyone with Kirtland anti-bank bills now realized their quandary and tried desperately to get rid of them. By February 1 the bills were selling for 12 ½ cents on the dollar. (According to Cyrus Smalling. See E. G. Lee, The Mormons, or Knavery Exposed, p. 14. Also William Harris: Mormonism Portrayed (Warsaw, Illinois, 1841), p. 30)

From the beginning, the bank had been operated illegally and Joseph was eventually ordered by the courts to pay the standard $1,000 penalty as well as court costs (see Chardon, Ohio, courthouse, Vol. U, p. 362). Needless to say, the dissolution of the bank and the catastrophic effects it held for those that trusted Joseph's word resulted in widespread disillusionment with the prophet. Under accusations of fraud, Joseph threatened to excommunicate any Saint who brought suit against a brother in the church. As Heber Kimball put it, during this time "there were not twenty persons on earth that would declare that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God." (Sermon delivered September 28, 1856. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 4, p. 105)

To be fair, many other banks failed during the "panic of 1837" and Saints who were ready to apostatize decided that Joseph's speculation looked more like an indiscretion than grand larceny. As related by Christopher Cary:

"It was marvelous to see with what tenacity they held to their faith in the prophet, when they knew they had been robbed, abused and insulted." (Pioneer and Personal Reminiscences, p. 45)

However, given the dishonest claims that appear to have been made regarding the bank's capital, the seemingly prophetic promises of prosperity in return for investment, and the fact that Joseph authorized and perpetuated the illegal operation of the bank in the first place, I personally consider this a poor reflection on Joseph's character and his ability to act under inspiration from God.

Joseph's ego and ambition is apparent in various statements by those who knew him. For example, in a letter to New England, Charlotte Haven wrote the following concerning Joseph and Emma:

"Sister Emma is very plain in her personal appearance, though we hear that she is very intelligent and benevolent, has great influence with her husband, and is generally beloved. She said very little to us, her whole attention being absorbed in what Joseph was saying. Joseph talked incessantly about himself, what he had done and could do more than other mortals, and remarked that he was a giant, physically and mentally." ("A Girl's Letters from Nauvoo," Overland Monthly, December 1890, p. 623)

Shortly before his death in 1844, Joseph boasted:

"If they want a beardless boy to whip all the world, I will get up on the top of a mountain and crow like a rooster: I shall always beat them.... My enemies... think that when they have my spoke under, they will keep me down: but the fools, I will hold on and fly over them.... I will come out on the top at last. I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet." (History of the Church, Vol. 6, p. 408-409)

In December 1843, Joseph's remarkable ambition was apparent in a petition he sent to Congress. He asked that Nauvoo be made a completely independent federal territory, with the Nauvoo Legion incorporated into the U.S. Army and the mayor of Nauvoo (himself) given power to call out the United States troops whenever necessary. This was accompanied with a prophecy:

"I prophesied by virtue of the holy Priesthood vested in me, and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that, if Congress will not hear our petition and grant us protection, they shall be broken up as a government and God shall damn them, and there shall be nothing left of them - not even a grease spot!"(Millennial Star, Vol. 22 (1860), p. 455. Note that the words in italics were omitted when this passage was reprinted in the History of the Church, Vol. 6, p. 116)

In March 1844, Joseph sent another vaunted petition to Congress. This time he asked to be appointed an officer in the U.S. Army with power to raise 100,000 volunteers to patrol and police the western borders of the United Sates all the way from Texas to Oregon.

At the time of his death Joseph was running for President of the United States. On March 11, 1844 he began to organize the "Kingdom of God", or "Council of Fifty" to be the "highest court on earth." In this organization, Joseph had allowed himself "to be ordained king to reign over the house of Israel forever." (see Brigham Young's diary as published in the Millennial Star, Vols. 26-27; Zion's Harbinger and Baneemy's Organ, Vol. III (July 1853), p. 52)


How Obvious Would It Have To Be?

Apologist Response

According to Hugh Nibley, the story related to the Kirtland anti-bank money boxes was unreliable at best:

"A useful form of parallel is the "identical anecdote." To prove Joseph Smith's dishonesty in operating the bank "several apostates at different times related an identical anecdote" about money-boxes. Now identical anecdotes can be assumed to indicate a common source, but no more: they say nothing as to the nature of that source or its reliability. For Mrs. Brodie the fact that they are identical proves not that they are commonly derived, but that they are actually true! What kind of history is that?" (Hugh Nibley, No Ma'am, That's Not History)

An anonymous LDS Historian (believed to be D. Michael Quinn) pointed out that prophets are far from perfect, as evidenced in the Bible:

"Although the prophets and authors of ancient religious history communicated God's condemnation against all sin, they also presented the clear understanding that God's servants continued to sin or "make mistakes," and were thus fully human despite a divine commission. Noah occasionally drank wine to the point of drunkenness and unconsciousness (Genesis 9:21, 23). Abraham acquiesced in his wife's mistreatment of his second wife (Genesis 16:6). Jacob "with subtlety" and deception obtained his brother's blessing from his blind father Isaac (Genesis 27:12, 35), and also hated his first wife Leah (Genesis 29:30-31). Moses at the least committed manslaughter prior to his call as a prophet (Exodus 2:12-14), and after that call occasionally exhibited doubt in God's word, fierce anger, and boastful arrogance (Exodus 4:10-14, 5:22-23, 32:19; Numbers 20:10-12). The Lord had to intervene directly to prevent Samuel from choosing the wrong man as king (1 Samuel 16:6-7). Daniel sought forgiveness for his sins while prophet (Daniel 9:20). Jonah resisted the commandment of God to him (Jonah 1:2-3, 4:1) Jesus drank enough alcohol at banquets to be criticized as a "winebibber" (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). James and John, as apostles, delighted in the thought of their opponents being destroyed (Luke 9:52-56) and pridefully sought to elevate themselves above the rest of God's children in the eternities (Mark 10:35-38). Peter was impudent, boastful, arrogant, and cowardly as an apostle during the life of Jesus (Matthew 16:21-23, 26:69-75; John 13:8-9, 18:10-11). Despite Christ's command to send the Gospel to all nations at His ascension (Matthew 27:19; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47), it required another specific revelation to Peter to persuade him that the Gospel should be taken to those who were not Jews (Acts 10-11), and even years after that revelation Peter continued to demonstrate his prejudice (Galatians 2:1,9,11-14). Nor did Peter hesitate to criticize the approach of his fellow apostle Paul in teaching the Gospel (2 Peter 3:15-16); Paul likewise boasted that he had publicly condemned Peter and "withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed" (Galatians 2:11-14). Moreover, conflicts between Barnabus and Paul resulted in the disruption of their mission (Acts 13:2, 15:36-39).

"Do such evidences of humanity, error, sin, and fallibility invalidate prophetic or apostolic callings? The answer to this question is ultimately a personal one, but it is obvious that in the Hebraic view of sacred history, these signs of humanity were not regarded as a repudiation of the callings of these men. The ancient writers of sacred history seemed to feel that by showing the humanity of God's servants, the rank-and-file of Israel and the Church would not assume that prophets and apostles were somehow otherworldly and immune from the kinds of problems plaguing the "ordinary" mortal. Ancient sacred history seemed to be telling all people: See, God chose these weak men to do great things in His service, and so each person on earth should realize that he or she can also serve God, receive revelation, and do righteousness, despite human problems and inability to live totally without sin." (Response to the Tanners by a Latter-Day Saint Historian)